Norwegian F-35s refuel in ‘hot pit’ and deploy from highways

In setting a European precedent, the Norwegian Air Force has begun operating F-35As on highways. This strategic maneuver could potentially shift paradigms for aircraft survivability during significant conflicts when traditional airbases are targeted.  

Major General Rolf Folland, the Chief of the Royal Norwegian Air Force, heralded this development as a pioneering achievement not only for Norway but also for the Nordic countries and NATO. His assertion articulated the potency of dispersal as a concept. He emphasized how by exploiting small airfields and now motorways, the Air Force can bolster their survivability during wartime since stationary fighter jets are susceptible to ground attacks. 

The ‘hot pit’ method

The initiation of F-35A operations from highways was part of a larger collaboration with Finland, the latest member of NATO. As part of these exercises, Norwegian F-35s were notably refueled on motorways in Finland while the aircraft’s engines were still operational – a method called “hot pit” refueling. This technique slashes the time needed to get them airborne again, thereby amplifying the operational efficiency. 

Despite being less fuel-efficient, “hot pit” refueling cuts down sortie rates and diminishes vulnerability by minimizing the duration an aircraft remains on the ground, thereby offering added safety measures.  

Transformative capacity

Norwegian F-35s refuel in 'hot pit' and deploy from highways
Photo by Ole Andreas Vekve

The paradigm of the F-35A, developed for the U.S. Air Force, was to operate from conventional runways, sans any rugged airfield capabilities. This contrasts with the design of the F-35B variant for the U.S. Marine Corps, which is equipped for short take-offs and vertical landings from makeshift landing strips. 

Despite being roughly 50% more expensive to acquire and maintain, the F-35B offers reduced range, a smaller weapons load, and diminished combat effectiveness compared to other models. Yet, it holds the transformative capacity to enhance the survivability of U.S. and allied fleets by launching from highways. This innovation could safeguard aircraft stationed everywhere from Korea and Japan to the United Arab Emirates and Eastern Europe, rendering them less vulnerable to initial enemy missile attacks during wartime. 

Furthermore, the concept of “hot pit” refueling could significantly increase sortie rates, particularly during early war hours. This strategy allows even modestly-sized F-35 units to conduct a greater number of missions within a specified timeframe. 

Ukraine started it all

The value of deploying aircraft from makeshift airstrips, even in logistically challenging environments, was recently underscored by the Ukrainian Air Force. Known for operating Soviet Su-27 and MiG-29 fighters, as well as Su-25 attack jets, Ukraine’s strategy takes full advantage of these aircraft’ capacity to function effectively within austere airfield operations. 

In response to Finland’s preparation to launch fighter operations from highways, the Finnish Defence Forces stated in a press release: “The Air Force undertakes regular training for swift dispersal nationwide when necessary. Such operations at road bases form an integral part of the training for all Air Force pilots.” 

The Finland’s purchase

In December 2021, Finland ordered its inaugural batch of F-35s, over a year before its NATO initiation. The Finnish Air Force’s experience training alongside Norwegian F-35 models is poised to provide a detailed understanding of how these next-generation stealth aircraft operate.

RAF Lakenheath in the UK is expected to host new US nukes in 2024 - British F-35
Photo by Senior Airman Koby I. Saunders

Remarkably, the cost for Finland’s F-35s was approximately 25 percent less than what Norway paid. The reason behind this is twofold. Firstly, Finland’s acquisition of more advanced models produced efficiently from later production batches on a larger scale, accounted for a decrease in cost. Secondly, contrasting Norway’s partnership in the program, Finland does not have joint ownership in crucial related technologies. 

Interestingly, despite operating Soviet fighters like MiG-21s during the Cold War era, today’s Finnish aircraft fleet comprises F-18C/D Hornet fourth-generation fighters. The anticipation around these fighters is that they will be replaced by the 64 F-35As now on order. Furthermore, it was disclosed in May that Finland is in discussion with the United States about hosting U.S. Air Force F-35 units. This placement would provide a strategic advantage for possible strikes on Russia’s Western and Arctic regions, if ever necessary.

But Norway is not the first

As documented by BulgarianMilitary.com on August 5, an impressive achievement was recorded by the Marine-operated F-35B Joint Strike Fighter. Specifically, the aircraft skillfully landed on a narrow, 50-foot-wide stretch of an abandoned highway in Southern California. Following a successful refueling and rearming procedure at this location, it ascended skyward once again. 

During this procedure, at the same temporary forward arming and refueling point, an intricate transfer operation was taking place. A Marine MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor relayed a torpedo to a Navy MH-60R Seahawk helicopter in what could be seen as a teaser for the future of Marine maneuvers in the Pacific.

This scenario demonstrated the United States Marine Corps understanding of the increasing need for novel collaboration strategies with other military entities, particularly in harsh and remote environments. This is seen as a crucial component to ensuring victory in likely confrontations within the Indo-Pacific theatre. 

Not only Russian Su-27 can do it - the F-35 landed on a highway
Photo by James Deboer

It falls to the Marines of Operational Test and Evaluation Squadron One [VMX-1] to bear the weighty task of preparation for such potential clashes. They are assigned with the development of the essential strategic playbook which serves not only as a guide but as a foundation for these imminent operations.

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